A Brief History of Chores

Want to understand why women still do more than their fair share of housework? History has the answers.

Vidhya Nagarajan for Fatherly

This story was produced in partnership with Dawn and Swiffer.

Every dish you wash, toilet you scrub, and garbage can you roll to the curb is one that your partner doesn’t have to. In other words, every time you take care of a chore you are giving the gift of time, time that can be spent playing with the kids, reading a book, or, performing that most luxurious of activities: doing absolutely nothing at all for a few minutes.

Stepping up to do your fair share of the housework — and having conversations about who does what to balance the scales — is a great way to ensure your own domestic tranquility. It’s also an important way to model good lessons for your kids and, importantly, make a dent in one of the most significant but least talked about inequities of our time: the chore gap between men and women, the fact that, even in a society that’s become so much more progressive in so many different ways, women still do a disproportionate amount of the housework.

A survey of 1,578 American adults conducted by Dawn and Swiffer put some numbers to the chore gap. It found that American women do an average of 100 more hours of housework per year than men and that women are more than twice as likely (63 percent vs. 31 percent) to take on the main responsibility for household chores than men are.

Those numbers represent an improvement on previous decades, sure, but they’re also a testament to the stubbornness of the chore gap. The reason it’s persisted for so long and in the face of so many other positive social changes is that it’s deeply rooted in the economic, social, and technological forces that shaped the world. When you look at the modern history of chores, it’s clear that even when it appeared that the chore gap might be vanquished, it always stuck around and, in some cases, worsened. Examining that history can help us identify those forces and, hopefully, figure out how to ensure men do their fair share of the domestic duties.

The Industrial Revolution

Before the Industrial Revolution, the lower classes were largely farmers. Within families, men and women did different tasks — preparing meals, working in the fields, and caring for the children among them. But they did them as part of one interconnected unit. Without modern conveniences like running water or processed food, everything took a lot longer and was a lot harder — a housewife could easily spend four hours a day simply maintaining the fire in her family’s wood-burning stove. But the most hated chore was laundry, what Rachel Haskell, a Nevada housewife, called “the Herculean task which women all dread.”

The Industrial Revolution made things better in some ways—life expectancy and per capita income rose simultaneously for the first time in history—but it also created a schism between men (and unmarried women) who went to work outside the home, leaving all domestic labor to their wives. The former kind of work was valued (quite literally, with wages) while the latter was not. It’s a dynamic that the stay-at-home parents of today will recognize all too well.

World Wars

A particularly dramatic example of this schism came during the world wars, as men of fighting age — some volunteers, some conscripted — left their country for military theaters abroad. As a result, women were left with even more to do. They entered the workforce in huge numbers. By the end of the first world war, 1.4 million more women were working in England, an increase of nearly 50 percent. The most common fields were agriculture and factory workers, with the latter producing the ammunition, vehicles, clothing, and other supplies that were shipped overseas.

Meanwhile, domestic responsibilities didn’t go away. In fact, they increased, as to help with the war effort, housewives in the U.S. were required to pledge to can food for future use, grow vegetables, and limit their consumption of scarce foodstuffs. On top of that, they were still expected to bolster the morale of their families at home and abroad.

At the end of the second world war, a majority of women surveyed wanted to keep their jobs. But many were instead unceremoniously let to make room for men returning from overseas to also return to the workforce, pushing women back into the domestic sphere.

The Postwar Era

After the end of World War II, the U.S. economy of boomed. The G.I. Bill paid for the education of 7.8 million veterans by 1956, creating a well-educated workforce and enlarging the middle class. Of course, most returning service members were men, which meant that most of the higher-paying jobs that went to G.I. Bill recipients went to men. The Baby Boom also meant there were more young children to take care of. Both factors contributed to women remaining in the home, where housework awaited them.

On the one hand, technological advances and more disposable income made appliances like washing machines and dishwashers more attainable. One might imagine that these machines would lessen the burden on women, but they actually raised owners’ standards of living and expectations of cleanliness. A groundbreaking study of time use surveys from 1920 to 1970 found that non-employed women ”spent about the same amount of time in household work throughout the 50-year period.” The tasks changed — they were more managerial (e.g. maintaining a family budget) and consumption-driven (e.g. driving to the store, clipping coupons) — but the workload didn’t.

Economic, technological, and cultural forces conspired to ensure women remained the primary housekeepers—and that the expensive new machines they filled their homes with didn’t actually lessen their burden.

Late 20th and Early 21st Century

Women’s participation in the workforce increased dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century. Thirty-two percent of women were employed in 1965; that figure was 60.3 percent at its peak in 2000. And while the average woman doubled her time at work between 1965 and 2011, the average man’s workweek went from 46 to 35 hours. It’s easy to see why men would like this—being the sole breadwinner is a lot of pressure, after all — but men remain more eager to share their wives’ paychecks than their chores.

This isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made. It’s no longer the norm to expect women to do all of the housework, of course, and men doubled the amount of time they spend doing chores on a weekly basis between 1965 and 2013. That’s good! And the goal isn’t really a 50/50 split—it’s each member of the couple feeling satisfied with the balance they’ve struck in their own household.

On that front, there is work to do. The Dawn and Swiffer survey found that 54 percent of American women are not satisfied with how chores are divided in their home. That should be a gut check for American families, a sign that it’s time for all couples to talk about what a fair division of labor would look like in their home and come up with a plan to make it a reality. As with pretty much all aspects of a relationship, then, communication is key. By starting these conversations and ensuring that the women in their household are satisfied with their choreloads, men can play an active role in accelerating the progress that’s being made narrowing the chore gap—and serve as positive role models for the kids who will need to come up with their own household standards when they get older.

The History of Housework

5000 B.C. Bleach is used as an agent to whiten fabrics in ancient Egypt.

2800 B.C. Earliest evidence of use of soap by humans dates back to clay vessels used in ancient Babylonia.

500 B.C. First sewers built in Italy by the Etruscans in cities eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire.

1500s Stale human urine used to launder clothes in Scotland.

1885 Good Housekeeping magazine founded in Holyoke, Massachusetts “conducted in the interests of the higher life of the household.”

1886 Josephine Cochran, annoyed that her servants chipped her China, designs the first dishwasher in Shelbyville, Illinois. It makes a splashy debut at the Chicago World’s Fair seven years later.

1907 First paper towels are released with the goal of preventing the spread of germs through cloth towels in public restrooms.

1913 America’s first commercial bleach factory founded in California.

1973 Dawn Dish Soap is introduced. In the next decade, it’s first used to help clean oil-covered wildlife.

1999 Swiffer hits the market, changing how people clean their floors forever.